During the past two decades, American voters have turned away from candidates with extensive backgrounds in government and opted for the new and improved models such as Donald Trump in 2016 who pledged to “drain the swamp” in Washington or Barack Obama in 2008 who said the time had come to “turn the page.”
Since 2000, Trump, Obama, and George W. Bush all defeated candidates who were far more experienced in government with Trump’s victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the culmination in a that trend in which “anything goes in terms of background,” said David Cohen, professor of political science at the University of Akron.
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It is a dramatic shift from the Cold War when the Berlin Airlift in 1948, Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, and the opening to Communist China in 1972 prompted voters to elect presidents with impressive credentials in national security.
But the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the intractable war in Vietnam which drove Lyndon Johnson from office in 1968 and the Watergate scandal which led to Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 jolted voters who turned to new faces with fresh ideas.
“If I am going to a brain surgeon I want someone who has trained to do brain surgery,” said Barbara Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “For someone with virtually no knowledge of government and really no knowledge of politics to sweep into power still dumfounds me.”
Cohen said “the great irony is perhaps a president’s most important role is commander in chief. For the most part the American people don’t put much of a premium on experience since the end of the Cold War.”
Right now, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who said on NBC’s Meet the Press that he has not “been marinating in Washington here for a very long time,” is among an array of new Democrats.
They include Beto O’Rourke, a former three-term member of Congress from Texas, first-term senators Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey.
And while second-term Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has deluged voters with detailed policy proposals, and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota has served 13 years in the Senate, the 37-year-old Buttigieg and the 46-year-old O’Rourke are competing to become the party’s ultimate fresh face.
“The most important thing to be a winning presidential candidate is to communicate in terms the voters understand and that means not talking in Washington-speak,” said John Feehery, a former U.S. House Republican staffer.
“The biggest problem people in Washington have had for a long time is they speak as if Washington is the center of the universe and most voters violently disagree with that notion,” Feehery said.
Jerry Austin, a longtime Democratic consultant in Ohio, said the elections of 2000, 2008, and 2016 “suggest that experience is not a criterion for winning. It’s personality.”
The classic example of a new face trumping experience was Republican George W. Bush who defeated Vice President Al Gore even though in an interview the Texas governor could not name the leaders of Chechnya, Taiwan, and Pakistan.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton aired a commercial declaring she had the background to answer life-threatening phone calls at three in the morning, plaintively saying that as a first-term senator, Obama lacked the experience to be president.
But that commercial landed with a thud. Obama liked to say “the real gamble was to have the same old folks do the same old thing, playing the same old Washington game over and over and over again and expecting different results.”
Presidents entering office without experience can succeed. Obama in 2009 inherited the worst financial crisis since the 1930s and deftly steered the country back to prosperity.
But at times voters discover inexperienced presidents appear overwhelmed with the job. Since 2001 the federal debt held by the public has soared from $3.4 trillion to $16 trillion, the nation’s financial system collapsed in 2008 throwing millions of people out of work, and America remains involved in two un-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then there were the campaign promises that appeared to evaporate. Obama insisted the health law he pushed through Congress in 2010 meant “if you like your health care plan, you can keep it.” Trump pledged in 2016 to build a wall along the southern border and force Mexico to pay for it.
“Voters are tired of stump speeches and broken campaign promises,” said Jessica Towhey, a onetime adviser to former House Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester Twp. “They are looking for something else.”
Today, “something else” could be Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Booker or Harris. “The most interesting candidate for the Democrats is Mayor Pete,” Feehery said. “He has the combination of small-town governing experience … but he also has the outsider thing wrapped up. Voters find that very appealing.”
Yet fresh faces often disintegrate under scrutiny. Herman Cain was an early hit with Republicans in 2011 only to drop out of the race following accusations of sexual harassment.
Corry Bliss, a onetime campaign adviser to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, quipped he does not even “know how to pronounce” Buttigieg’s name “nor am I willing to invest the time to learn how …because in a month no one will remember who is.”
There are analysts who hope the fad of electing inexperienced presidents may wear itself out, particularly after Trump’s tumultuous presidency. Perry of the Miller Center said there is a history “in this country of people thinking they want one at one time and when that doesn’t work, they swing in another direction.”
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